In middle of fun, games, deep void at Virginia Tech

The Baltimore Sun

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- In the tunnel, their excitement was eerily marked by complete silence. While Virginia Tech's football players waited, just a few feet away, in the stadium's giant bowl, more than 66,000 fans locked their eyes on a moving video tribute playing on the scoreboard.

When the video finished, the opening riffs of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" started playing, and the players burst onto the field. Then a football game was played, which I guess isn't too surprising since that's what everyone came to see. But it had been billed as much more.

For several weeks, sportswriters, sportscasters and sports fans hastily tried to assign contextual insight and deep meaning to this three-hour chunk of a Saturday afternoon.

Just 4 1/2 months removed from the worst mass murder committed by a lone gunman in the nation's history, Virginia Tech happily opened its arms yesterday, welcoming football back onto campus.

But I just didn't get it. And so I left.

We can all appreciate communities coming together - family, friends and neighbors helping each other in times of need. But for an outsider, a safe distance from whatever theatrical television production the rest of the nation was witnessing on ESPN, yesterday's East Carolina-Virginia Tech season opener felt just like any other game, and I really wanted it to be more.

I spoke with Vincent Bove, a spokesman for the families of six shooting victims, and while he echoed some of the warm sentiments others had shared leading up to the game, he managed to delve a bit deeper.

"I realize the power of sport in times like this, but at the same time, this is a tragedy that can never be buried. It's with us for a lifetime," he said. "The hurt these families feel is not going away."

The families, they want the students and fans to enjoy everything the game represents and has to offer, but they want everyone to remember the people who died in an event that was preventable and they want the leadership to be held accountable."

While the victims of the April massacre were poignantly honored before the game, it was somewhat unnerving to pay respects and then - as if a switch had been flipped - immediately scream, cheer and howl for a kickoff. Midway through the third quarter, I left my glass perch in the press box, took the elevator five floors down and walked out of the stadium. Virginia Tech was leading 10-7.

I walked to Harper Hall, where on April 16, a senior English major named Seung-Hui Cho lived. I walked toward West Ambler Johnston Hall, another dormitory not far away, where Cho claimed his first two victims. From outside West Ambler Johnston, Lane Stadium is visible just 150 yards away.

If the gunman allowed his eyes to wander that morning, he surely would've noticed the tall structure, looming like a proud castle that presides over an entire campus.

As the game continued inside, the crowd noise - a steady, low buzz - hung over the campus like a fog. I walked farther north, across the vast Drillfield. A memorial had been constructed in front of Burress Hall. There, 32 stone markers carry the names of the lives that were taken, each decorated with flowers and candles.

Not far away stands Norris Hall, the classroom building where Cho took 30 lives. A yellow sign on the doorway reads "Valid Virginia Tech ID required for entry," and standing on the perimeter, you'd never know a football game was taking place anywhere nearby.

I caught myself taking quick, shallow breaths and the muted solitude was discomforting, knotting itself in my stomach. The sensation didn't last long. The stillness was interrupted by a loud roar that came rushing toward Norris Hall from far off in the distance, followed quickly by a loud blast. It sounded like a gunshot, but I quickly realized I was jolted alert by the cannon just north of the stadium.

The Hokies had just scored a touchdown. Four months later, there was a football game being played. Which means some normalcy, the man on TV had said, which means some routine had returned to Blacksburg.

I made my way back to the stadium and watched the final minutes from down on the field. When time expired, the Hokies sang their alma mater and headed toward the locker room. Mission accomplished ... if the mission was to win a football game.

"We're not magical healers," Hokies quarterback Sean Glennon said later.

For several days in April, the nation was engulfed in the tragedy. At some point, though, the live trucks packed up their gear and said goodbye to the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains.

With football as an excuse to revisit the story, now we're to view all this pigskin hubbub as a welcomed distraction. We're supposed to take comfort in knowing that Virginia Tech has something to smile about and something to cheer for.

And it's true - saying football plays a role in the healing process is, in fact, comforting, not necessarily for those who need the healing, but for the rest of us. We want to think that things are getting better. As ridiculous as it might sound, it feels good inside to think that sport plays a major role in the process.

"I think people around here are very aware of how complex the healing really is," said Dr. Gary Bennett, the Hokies' sports psychologist, who cheered the team from his seat in Section 8. "It's going to take a long time and there will be a lot of steps. This game is another step. But we're far from being done with this."

In the end, Virginia Tech won its season opener, its first football game since that terrible shooting. The final score was 17-7.

As the sun started dipping in the sky, the celebration poured from Lane Stadium onto the streets of Blacksburg. Despite the smiles and high-fives, everyone went home plenty aware that as nice as winning might feel on a Saturday afternoon, it does little to erase the pain - or the memories - of profound losses.

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